Reinvent the safety net


We need to rethink America’s social safety net. We need to make it stronger for people who desperately need it and we need to get rid of it for folks who don’t.

There are four distinct groups that need four distinct approaches to the social safety net. And there are three distinct ways that the federal government can help them.

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Four groups rely on the help from the government: children who live in poverty; the truly disabled; adults who are able-bodied but who can’t or won’t find a job; and retirees, many of whom have plenty of money but have paid into the Social Security and Medicare programs and want a return on their investments.

There are three ways the government helps. First, it gives cash payments or the equivalent in tax relief. Second, it provides critical services, like education and job training programs or public housing. And third, it is a third-party payer, i.e., paying doctors and hospitals via reimbursement.

All three approaches are vulnerable to fraud.

There are different approaches to how we should approach these four groups, with an eye toward accountability and efficiency. We also need to rethink how much money we spend on each group.

We don’t spend enough on children and we spend too much on retirees. We spend too much on able-bodied people who should be able to take care of themselves and not nearly enough on the severely disabled, especially the mentally ill.

People who are of sound body and sound mind and can work shouldn’t get a dime of assistance. Not a dime.

Retirement security for able-bodied Americans should mostly be handled by the private sector, and incentives should be created through the tax code to help. People are living longer and they should be forced to rely less on government programs and more on their own planning. There should be aggressive tax incentives for younger workers to buy long-term health insurance and to participate in retirement plans. The government should not be in the business of making retirement cushy for rich seniors. Younger Americans should also be incentivized to buy health insurance that they have for life. This can and should be offered by the private sector, and regulated by the government.

No child should be forced to live in squalid conditions. If their parents can’t take care of them, somebody else should. Kids can’t take care of themselves, especially young ones. When children are ignored and allowed to grow wild in the streets, they become a danger to society. If parents can’t handle their children or won’t take care of them or are homeless, the government must step in. The government, of course, can’t do it all and should work with religious and other charitable organizations. Government also has a moral and economic imperative to adequately educate these children so that they can become productive citizens.

Mentally ill people should not be forced to fend for themselves. The number of homeless veterans on our streets is a national disgrace. Bag ladies should not have the freedom to wander around. They should be cared for in a safe environment.

One final point: We don’t spend enough money on the basic research required to conquer the two most debilitating diseases to hit the elderly: Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. This is a necessary role of government because these two diseases suck the American people dry emotionally and financially. If we can crack the code on how to prevent these two diseases, we will make America’s seniors more productive well into their Golden Years.

Imagine for a moment that we became a nation that took care of its children, took care of its disabled and mentally ill, took care of its homeless veterans, made its able-bodied adults work and required that its seniors adequately plan for their retirement years. We would be a stronger, more compassionate and better America.

Feehery is president of Quinn Gillespie Communications and spent 15 years working in the House Republican leadership. He is a contributor to The Hill’s Pundits Blog and blogs at thefeeherytheory.com.